Confronted with all the limitations of my stiff training as a historian of science, I have become enchanted by the narratives taking shape at the intersection of academic research and museum work with texts, things, space, and people. In March 2018, we are opening the exhibition FOLK: From Racial Types to DNA Sequences at The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo. Every time I utter these words, my heart starts beating faster. For me, this is where the history of anthropology comes alive, where we can test its contemporary relevance, and where all could go wrong.

FOLK explores research on human biological diversity by juxtaposing interwar racial science with contemporary population genetics. The starting point is the scientific practices of measuring, visualizing, classifying, mapping, standardizing, and (e)valuating human variation. Our aim is to shed light on entanglements between society, culture, politics, technology, and economy in the production of individual and group identities.

The exhibition floor will be filled with objects: from skin color scales and hair indices to racial photos and Nazi propaganda posters, from human skulls examined in both historical and contemporary contexts to facial reconstructions, from photos and videos of modern and so-called ‘ancient’ DNA labs to commercial DNA testing kits. These objects are powerful and affective; they are invested with all kinds of meanings as they oscillate between the readily available and tangible to the obscure, mystical, and even invisible. While our focus is on Norway, we address the transnational circulation of practices, objects, and ideas in both historical and contemporary times, so we include networks of interaction beyond Scandinavia. Our hope is that the exhibition will provide a public space for people to meet, become curious, and eventually feel empowered to discuss the racializing processes of today.

Photo: Inger Nikolaisdatter Tjikkom (b. 1879) with her son Peder (b.1912) and daughter Sara (b. 1908), 1914. Photographed by Johan Brun during K. E. Schreiner’s research in Tysfjord. © 2017 Tromsø Museum, UiT/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Putting history on display, especially a history so enmeshed with colonialism, nationalism, and racism—all far from being only part of history—is not a straightforward process (Lynch and Alberti 2010; McDonald 2013). For example, in 1914 and 1921, the medical doctors and physical anthropologists from the University of Oslo, Kristian Emil Schreiner (1874-1957) and Alette Schreiner (1873-1951), conducted surveys of the Sami peoples living in the area of Tysfjord in northern Norway (Kyllingstad 2014). The research included the excavation and measurement of skeletal materials and the photography and measurement of 222 living individuals. In 1932, A. Schreiner published a report from these surveys in German. Photos from the surveys, excerpts from the report, a radio interview with the Schreiners’ local, non-Sami guide, and a video with interviews from the descendants of the photographed will all be included in the new FOLK exhibit.

The afterlives of these scientific products are contradictory, in this case evoking recent memories of harsh assimilation policies and racism, but they also carry the potential for reclamation (see also Edwards in this Focus Section). On one hand, these remnants document scientists’ use of coercion and even force in research encounters. For example, in her report from 1932, Alette Schreiner wrote, “As often with primitive people, ‘our’ Lapps, despite their childish curiosity and kindness, were almost completely unwilling to allow exact measurements, especially to the extent this meant undressing. … Not rarely, it was necessary to resort to some mild violence. In some cases, it did not help either; people were shy and suspicious and fled simply if you came too close” (Schreiner 1932 [my translation]). The local Árran Museum is currently researching this photographic material to identify the people shown; it collects oral histories from their families. Historian Bjørg Evjen documented the following story: “My Sami great grandmother had just come from the forest when the researchers started the measurements. She did not even have time to tidy herself up before they began measuring her. It was almost as if they wanted it that way” (Evjen 1997).

On the other hand, in recent memory practices such as these, historical documents take on new meanings. The people living in Tysfjord were unaware of the photographs until the early 1980s. Since then, many locals have started scanning their family’s photos, and some now hang on the walls in Tysfjord homes; they are often the only portraits available from that time. These photos will also appear on the exhibit’s walls not only as reminders of the dehumanizing aspects of past research but in order to tell the story of how local people have re-appropriated them.

How should our exhibition deal with such asymmetrical encounters between scientists and subjects? The voices included in the show had and continue to have distinctive valences. None of this is unknown to anthropologists. What makes the history of anthropology even more challenging is the ease with which we can slip into constructing heroes and demons, forgetting that much of this past is still present in people’s lives and remembrances. Our scholarly nuances can easily get lost somewhere between evocative objects, short museum labels, and the limited time our visitors spend inside the exhibit. But museum exhibitions are not scholarly texts, nor should they become them.

The history of anthropology is at its best when experienced, shared, and communicated by the people coming together around the exhibition development process and in the show. Museums are no longer understood as monolithic institutions offering authoritative narratives, and our visitors are more diverse than ever. New museology studies have raised fundamental questions on the practices of display, especially in exhibitions that use reflexivity and critical approaches to science and technology (Butler 2015). When dealing with such a difficult heritage, we always risk people getting hurt; we risk our carefully curated stories being distorted, and our collaborations ending up broken. But raising these discussions in close cooperation with local communities and actors is the only way to come to grips with the past and to respond to current resurgences of racism and nationalism.


Read another piece in this series.


Works Cited:

Butler, Shelley Ruth. 2015. “Reflexive Museology: Lost and Found.” In The International Handbooks of Museum Studies. 2:9: 159-182.

Evjen, Bjørg. 1997. “Measuring Heads: Physical Anthropological Research in North Norway.” Acta Boeralia, 14 (2): 3-30.

Kyllingstad, Jon Røyne. 2014. Measuring the Master Race: Physical Anthropology in Norway, 1890-1945. Cambridge, UK: OpenBook Publishers.

Lynch, Bernadette T. and Samuel J.M.M. Alberti. 2010. “Legacies of Prejudice: Racism, Co-Production and Radical Trust in the Museum.” Museum Management and Curatorship, 25(1): 13-35.

McDonald, Sharon, 2013. Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe Today. London and New York: Routledge.

Schreiner, Alette. 1932. Anthropologische Lokaluntersuchungen in Norge: Hellemo (Tysfjordlappen). Oslo: Det Norske videnskaps-akademi.


The caption of the photograph included here was updated on 5 Dec 2017 to include additional information about the individuals pictured. 

Ageliki Lefkaditou: contributions / website / / Postdoctoral Researcher/ Teknisk Museum